Recs & Reads: Lost, Gone Girl, and Sam Amidon

This will be a new feature, hopefully weekly (YOU’VE LIED TO US BEFORE, AARON), wherein I recommend one movie and one album coming out this week based on hype alone and also I recommend great articles to read from the past week.

Recs

gonegirlMovie of the week: Gone Girl

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a man whose wife (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared. If the movie is anything like the book (and the chilling trailer suggests it will be), not all is as it seems; Nick ends up being the police’s prime suspect in the first of many twists and turns. The director, David Fincher, is widely considered one of the best of his generation (He made Fight ClubZodiac, and The Social Network. So yeah.), and Gillian Flynn’s novel was one of the best (and best-selling) books of 2012.

samamidonAlbum of the week: Lily-O by Sam Amidon

I know this should probably go to Prince’s new albums (2 of them! In the same week!), but I couldn’t help myself. Sam Amidon is a folk artist from Vermont who incorporates jazz stylings in his original songs and his covers of songs by artists like Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw…I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Look, his album last year, Bright Sunny South, was one of my favorite records of 2013, so give him a chance, huh?

Reads

The Lessons of ‘Lost': Understanding the Most Important Network Show of the Past 10 Years (Grantland)

That’s a bold proclamation in that title, but it should be tempered with the realization that network TV has basically sucked for the past 10 years. Grantland’s TV critic, Andy Greenwald, breaks down the impact that Lost should have had and the wrong lessons the networks learned from the show. It’s a great read for those of us who stuck with Lost for its entire run and loved every second of it.

What Bill Simmons Showed About ESPN (The New Yorker)

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson sheds some light on what was wrong with ESPN’s suspension of Bill Simmons. I tend to think ESPN suspended him less for his bashing of Goodell and more for his blatant insubordination directed at ESPN itself, but Davidson’s dissection of the situation makes it seem a lot fishier.

Zen Is Still Nowhere Near the Building (Comic Book Resources)

Kelly Thompson has been blogging at CBR for quite some time now, usually focusing on women in comics. The level of chauvinism in the comic book world is staggering, and she is constantly exposing it as thoroughly as possible. This article isn’t from this past week, but, well, y’know.

Quick Take: Anastasia (1997)

anastasiaYou never want to go back to a childhood favorite only to discover that it’s actually a bad movie. Yes, I used to love Anastasia when I was a kid; my family had the soundtrack, and we’d listen to it on road trips, my sister and I singing along at the top of our voices in the backseat. I was surprised to discover that, in this harmless fictional story about the lost princess of Russia and the con men who want to use her to make a buck, the parts that hold up best are the screenplay and the music. I had expected to find both cheesy; instead, I was charmed by the clever script and enthused by the catchy songs, which would actually translate really well to the stage. I could live without Rasputin and Bartok; they lend an air of stupidity to a story that holds up well on its own. I was disappointed by the animation, however; it looks hastily drawn, the product of a studio (Fox Animation Studios) that was just trying to catch up to Disney. But, in hindsight, the sketchy quality of the animation actually gives it a nostalgic charm.

Quicker take: No one could confuse this with Disney, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Song of the Hour: “The Never Haves” by Foreknown

“The Never Haves” is broken into two parts. Foreknown first raps about things he’s had to suffer through in his life, a relatively common subject in rap. A lot of them are frustrating and unjust. Some of them he had a hand in; they were his own sins. But as that segment ends, we feel empathy for Foreknown, maybe even pity. “Poor Foreknown.” But then, in the infinitely more potent second verse, Foreknown describes the awful things the Christ had to suffer through. As he enumerates them over a simple, spaced-out beat, his voice increases in intensity, lifting your eyes to the cross with it.

Quick Take: Upstream Color (2013)

upstreamcolorGrubs getting into bloodstreams. Humans developing personal affinities to pigs. Orchids growing from piglets’ corpses. Sound like the ingredients to a stellar sci-fi movie? They didn’t to me either, even after the first time I watched Upstream Color. I was intrigued enough though to see it a second time, to see if the obtuse plot made more sense with another viewing. Incredibly, after the second viewing, I was able to see past the plot’s ambiguous details. On the other side were wonderful performances and ethereal imagery centered around the idea that the reasons we feel connected to people or things are often unexplainable.

Quicker take: Grubs, pigs, and orchids, oh my!

Music Bummys 2014: Best Albums of 2013

Drinking game for you as you read this: take a shot every time I use the word “folk”. I’ll buy all these albums for whoever gets through the entire thing before falling asleep on their keyboard.

(Please don’t actually do this. I’m not about that life- the life of you getting drop-dead drunk or the life of buying twenty-five albums for anyone, even my loved ones.)

Links are to the albums on Spotify.

Top Ten

music1010. Heatstroke / The Wind and the War by KaiL Baxley: Music has always been a mishmash of genres, though it does seem like it has become more common to fill your sound with the echoes of disparate styles. Baxley’s album (really, a double EP) is an amalgamation of folk, blues, rock, gospel, even hip-hop. Some albums with all these sounds combined may come off as messy. But Baxley’s songs are tight, and the styles he draws from make for a cohesive vision. To paraphrase my good friend, Rust: music is a flat circle; everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.

music099. Yeezus by Kanye West: Yeezus could not be more different from the other rap albums on this list. Where Beautiful Eulogy and Drake find their niche in quiet production and thought-provoking lyrics, West doubles down on the latter and obliterates the former. The instrumentation on Yeezus has been dubbed “industrial”, but that’s not quite accurate. A better word would be the one Daft Punk ascribed to it: “primal”. It’s the sound of rap being reborn.

music088. Instruments of Mercy by Beautiful Eulogy: Beautiful Eulogy doesn’t sound like much of anything else. There are hints of A Tribe Called Quest in BE’s members and their chill flows, but Beautiful Eulogy are a style all their own. It suits them, the intellectual lyrics combined with the buoyant production. The three members (rappers Braille and Odd Thomas with producer Courtland Urbano) draw from all sorts of genres to fixate you on their honest ideas. The result is a thesis statement of uncommon joy.

songs087. The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake: Over a year after its release, I can’t help feeling this album was totally underrated at the time. Expectations were high, which, let’s be honest, was Timberlake’s doing, what with the neverending marketing campaign and the pretentious assertions in the media that he was reaching for “great music”. Now that we’re away from the hype machine, The 20/20 Experience sounds like truly great music without the ignominy of a lack of a hit single or the burden of pleasing the critics. It’s a slice of retro-soul with hooks from beginning to end.

music066. Desire Like Dynamite by Sandra McCracken: It’s hard not to write about this album in the context of the hard year McCracken has had. She and her husband, Derek Webb (see below), announced their pending divorce in April. This album was released in January last year, over a year before. Webb appears on a few of the songs, and it’s always heartwrenching. But McCracken’s lyrics and beautiful voice are so powerfully focused on Christ’s return and the redemption he promises, it manages to convince you this music is an artistic triumph with effects that will outlast her personal turmoil.

music055. Inland by Jars of Clay: Inland is Jars of Clay’s least gimmicky album yet. That’s not to say Jars of Clay has relied on gimmicks before this, only that you can look back on their discography and pigeonhole every single one of their albums: Jars of Clay is the precocious debut, Who We Are Instead is the folk record, Good Monsters is the rock record, The Long Fall Back to Earth is the one where they went electric, and The Shelter is their late-career, collaboration record. I suppose Inland is the mature record? But that implies the rest of them were somehow immature, and you could never say that about Dan Haseltine’s lyrics or the band’s musical prowess. Inland, as a whole, isn’t doing anything different soundwise, and it doesn’t strike me as covering different ground lyricwise. But the band seems less prone to angst, as if they’ve begun to fully embrace their role in providing encouragement to those younger than them. Okay, it’s official: Inland is their grandpa record.songs014. American Kid by Patty Griffin: Patty Griffin has operated on the fringes of the mainstream for so long, it’s easy to forget the influence she’s had. Artists from the Dixie Chicks to Miranda Lambert have covered her work. Taylor Swift writes Griffin’s lyrics on her arm at her concerts. You could argue the current Americana boom wouldn’t be possible without her; for all the fakers in the scene, her authenticity is responsible for the real deals. American Kid isn’t my favorite record of hers, but it seems like her most personal. Griffin’s father recently passed away, and his ghost is all over the album, directly in “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, as she celebrates his freedom from this world, and indirectly in songs like “I Am Not a Bad Man” and “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”, song in which she takes on the persona of a man striving to justify his existence. But nothing haunts this record more than Griffin’s voice; whether she sings from a character’s perspective or her own, her voice commands your attention.

music033. Once I Was an Eagle by Laura Marling: It’s nice to have mystery in life. You’re not supposed to know everything about people, even the ones you love the most. You need a certain distance in order to remain relevant. Laura Marling lives in that distance. It’s the area between people who think they’re in love, but who learn they never really knew each other in the first place. It’s the space between the people in a one night stand after they’ve realized what they did together wasn’t worth the subsequent awkwardness as they lie in bed. It’s the nothingness at the center of the rolling stone’s many transient relationships. You wish for stability and steadiness for Marling. But then you worry she’d lose her poignancy, and you lose yourself in her album’s spare beauty.

music022. Beyoncé by Beyoncé: I was going to write about Beyoncé when she first released it, but I struggled with what angle to take. It’s easy to write about anything you love, but it’s difficult to write about something you’re not sure you should love. But I already addressed my issues with the album’s sexuality in my Best Songs post, so I’d much rather take up this space with my love for the album. When Beyoncé was released out of nowhere last December, it felt like the purest pop statement imaginable, which is impossible considering how much money the Carter family is making right now. But Beyoncé eschewed the regular format for releasing an album, making it clear that this was hers; even if she didn’t write the songs, the full product, the album as a whole, the songs in their collected form (including the explicit videos, which I haven’t seen), are her statement. It’s a statement of feminism, yes, and a statement of a woman owning her sexuality, and a statement that pop music has taken a step back and it’s time to go forward. But more than that: it’s a statement that no one is going to unseat her as the queen.

music011. Southeastern by Jason Isbell: Listen to an album enough times, and you begin to see the seams. The machine shows its gears a little bit at a time, and you sometimes lose appreciation for the song as you discover how it’s managed to hook you. This can’t happen with Southeastern. There’s nothing to hook you on this album. I supposed it has the allure of the Americana megalith that has become the new “alternative” to mainstream music, but Jason Isbell is outside of that. He had his break in Drive-By Truckers, which is an outfit full of people who couldn’t care less about trends; they made songs and whole albums about dead classic rockers during his tenure, as an example. Southeastern does have a convenient narrative- Isbell made it having been relatively newly sober and non-relatively married. But Isbell addresses his cleanness only once, in “Stockholm,” as he laments being enamored with his captor (in this case, addiction). The rest of the album is preoccupied with death, loss, and the end of things, with at least two songs about his funeral, at least two that address the deaths of the people around him, and one about a province in Australia. Closer “Relatively Easy” ties a bow on those themes, but not a pretty one; you come away from Southeastern supremely moved, and “Relatively Easy” is Isbell’s reminder not to get too worked up about death. Compared to the rest of the world, our lives are easy. Compared to the rest of the world, our deaths are probably easier too.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically by artist)

Doldrums by Andrew St James: Like early Bob Dylan if his home base was the Bay Area? I’d rather compared him to Van Morrison. His style is far more free-flowing and melodic than Dylan’s early-period, straight-laced protest folk.

Reflektor by Arcade Fire: One of the more obtuse albums of the year, and the most divisive. My feelings on Reflektor go back and forth; I’ll love it one listen, then feel ambivalence on the next listen. Regardless, Reflektor is an ambitious statement of a rock album that tackles subjects other bands are really willing to face head on in songs like “Porno” and “Afterlife”.

The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars: Civil Wars, we hardly knew ye. Who knows what really happened to Joy Williams and John Paul White, but whatever it was, you can hear it all over their self-titled second album. Spite, regret, and general darkness are just dripping from their words as they expand the depths of their acoustic folk sound from their first record with slow-roasting production.

The Rooster by David Ramirez: Your EP better be super good for me to include it on this list. Ramirez is an Austin singer-songwriter, specializing in blunt folk that either excoriates himself or certain trends he finds reprehensible, which is kind of what folk used to be if you think about it. Over the past year, his songs have connected with me with a consistency like no one else’s; if he had transferred this quality to a full album, it surely would have been near the top.

I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You by Derek Webb: This one hurts, though I won’t pretend to have any special insight into Webb’s relationship with McCracken (see above). But it’s hard to hear Webb sing so clearly about relationships with what sounds like wisdom and joy. Even so, the songs speak for themselves, and I Was Wrong is full of great ones.

Nothing Was the Same by Drake: He’s a better rapper than most of the rappers and a better singer than most of the singers; put that together, and what have you got? One Aubrey Drake Graham, whose Nothing Was the Same may not have been the cohesive thesis statement that Take Care was. But Nothing does have the greatest album cover of all time (arguably).

Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner: You could describe Turner’s sound pretty accurately as folk-punk, but this was the best pure rock album of the year. Turner sounds like the kind of man who needs to parse through his relationships’ demons by letting loose a little bit. If so, this album probably did the trick.

Quiet Frame; Wild Light by Golden Youth: Gungor released only one album last year, but you’d be forgiven for confusing Quiet Frame for one of theirs, especially since it’s better than I Am Mountain. Where Gungor found themselves caught up in abstract ideas rather than the straightforward gospel-sharing from their first two albums, Golden Youth keep it simple. In only seven songs, Quiet Frame celebrates all the ways God blesses us in this life.

The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe: No one does Prince like Monáe these days, especially not even Prince. The Electric Lady is a continuation of the android concept from her brilliant ArchAndroid. As devoted as she is to that concept (and maybe after a third album she’ll have it beaten into me), her devotion to kinetic R&B is what keeps me coming back.

Trouble Will Find Me by The National: If you hate consistency, you’ll loathe The National. They aren’t concerned with things like “changing our sound” or “growing as a band”. They’re content to make the same brand of soft rock till they die out, puncturing relationships with indelible images on album after album, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception to their greatness.

Meet Me at the Edge of the World by Over the Rhine: Over the Rhine are a group from Ohio who have received this blog’s praises before. They’re a lot like Patty Griffin: operating outside the mainstream, but influencing a ton of people in their genre. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is their most subdued album yet, and it projects serenity from beginning to end.

Muchacho by Phosphorescent: If you like Kurt Vile, you’ll love Phosphorescent. That is, of course, unless you don’t like your songs to have energy or sound like they’re full of life. Where Vile fully embraces the stoner sound without actually lighting up, it’s easy to imagine Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck with a joint in one hand while he skydives into an abyss.

Talented 10th by Sho Baraka: The most underrated album by a Christian last year, probably because Sho drops a bunch of N-words on one of the songs. But focusing on the profanity is missing his point. Talented 10th is a front-to-back dissection of life within black culture from a Christian perspective, and Sho came so close to unseating Yeezus from the top ten that you have to give this a listen.

Nobody Knows. by Willis Earl Beal: This was the peak of Beal’s troubadour powers. He’s backsliding into self-parody at this point, but Nobody Knows. was a full album’s worth of his best material. He does meandering folk better than anyone, and it’s my hope that he gets back to this level soon.

W.L.A.K. by W.L.A.K.: Grantland’s Jalen Rose and David Jacoby held a bracket for who has was the best hip-hop group of all time. Seems like they overlooked one, #amiright? W.L.A.K. (Alex Faith, Christon Gray, Dre Murray, and Swoope) are new, but they make quite the impression on this album that made the best of all their distinct styles.

Previous Top Tens

2012

Andrew Peterson: Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae: Gravity
Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree: Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Fable
Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

2011

Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele: 21
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Drake: Take Care
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé: 4
Matt Papa: This Changes Everything

Movie Bummys 2014: Best Movies of 2013

I find myself explaining this every year, but it seems necessary. The reasons I wait till September to do the Bummys are these:

  • It gives me some space from the hype cycle that inevitably colors everyone’s year-end lists in the middle of awards season.
  • It gives me a chance to watch everything I want to watch, though I never actually get to watch everything.
  • Hindsight is 20/20.

I realize in this Internet age, everyone reading this forgot we had a 2013 last year, and so these posts are borderline irrelevant to everyone’s life. I missed the window by about 10 months. But I don’t care. Hopefully you’ll see something on this list that interests you, something different from the kind of movie you usually watch. Maybe you’ll seek it out at your local library or Netflix or Blockbuster (R.I.P.), and you’ll find you like it. That would be the greatest success for me.

Top Ten

movies1010. The Past: Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s premiere filmmaker, knows melodrama better than any American director. If The Past were an American movie (even an independent film), all the little holes in the backstory would be filled in early on, and we’d be waiting for the cathartic ending that reminded us why life is worth it. I’m not saying that would be a bad movie, but The Past as it is will always be the better version. Farhadi knows that the hook of the movie (Why is Marie’s daughter, Lucie, really against her mother getting married to Samir?) isn’t the ultimate point. He knows it’s all in that final shot, the shot of a hand we’re all waiting on to move. Sometimes life doesn’t have cathartic endings, and we just keep waiting.

movies099. American Hustle: In my review of American Hustle I complained about the cop-out of an ending. I don’t think I was wrong, but in looking back at 2013, American Hustle, in all its imperfection, stands out as one of the most exciting movies of the year. I want to pin it all on the spectacular cast, but then I remember the stomach-flipping pop music and David O. Russell’s hyperkinetic camera movements, both matching the chaotic nature of the characters and the story without removing you from either. You could dwell on the fact that literally none of the movie is believable as a story, whether it had been fiction or truly non-fiction. But in dwelling, you’d miss the sheer audacity of everything onscreen. So just sit back and enjoy the bullshit in all its coiffed glory.

movies088. Short Term 12: I’m learning all too well and all too quickly at my job in the Oklahoma City school system that you can’t help everyone. There are too many kids that come through your school, and they’re going to leave, so you love them the best you can with the time you have and you let them go. Short Term 12 is the story of a woman coming to terms with this reality at the group home she helps run. Brie Larson gets the starring role she deserves, and the teenage actors they chose for the kids at the group home deserve starring roles of their own someday. But the kicker of Short Term 12 is that maybe the best way to come to terms with having the kids only for the short term is to fight as hard as you can against that transience.

movies077. The World’s End: One of several comedies last year about the apocalypse, The World’s End stood head and shoulders above the rest. This Is the End had an equally wacked out ending, but The World’s End is far nuttier throughout. As the end of an ostensible trilogy, you’d expect some measure of closure for the man-child Simon Pegg has played in all three. And director Edgar Wright does get to some lesson-learning, but you end up caring a lot less about that than the uncharted directions he takes the story. Comedies are so often limited by the need to please the audience; Wright and Co. know the best way to please the audience is to forget about them and make something totally and completely different.

movies066. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass’s movies are simple, finding fascinating the routine processes we go through before our lives are thrown into chaos. And once a wrench is thrown into the mix, Greengrass is methodical in showing you how his characters fight to maintain an even keel. Tom Hanks gives perhaps his best performance as the titular captain, fighting to protect his crew and maintain peace when Somali pirates (led by Muse, played by the remarkable Barkhad Abdi) board his ship and take them hostage. True to Greengrass’s M.O., it’s all fairly straightforward, until it’s not. At some point, you have to grapple with the fact that the Somalis come across onscreen just as human as the Americans; it’s a good time to remember this, in light of ISIS and the terrible stories we’re hearing from Iraq.

movies055. Gravity: Space is the final frontier, so it only makes sense that the most pioneering movies should take place there. Even so, Gravity was a wholly unexpected delight last year. Sure, we’d known Alfonso Cuarón was making it, and we knew it would be good, because Children of Men. But we didn’t know it was going to be this good. Sure, the critics can’t help but bring up the simplistic screenplay, but aren’t you nitpicking at that point? Gravity, as an experience, swept me up utterly and completely, and I don’t think my feet have touched the ground since.

movies044. Inside Llewyn Davis: It’s about the cat. I’ve been trying to come to some sort of conclusion as to why I like this movie when its protagonist (and, come to think of it, most of the cast) is pretty loathsome. Yes, it’s beautifully shot by the Coen brothers; its circular plot is rich with themes about art and death and accomplishment; and the music is sublime. But still, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a total jerk. It’s the cat; he takes care of it the whole movie, so he must be okay, right?

movies033. Her: Frankly, the trailers sell this movie short. They make Her out to be a twee romantic comedy between a dweeb and his iPad. I’m not saying that’s not true, but Her contains so much more. There’s a moment in Her when Samantha (the AI operating system that Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with, as voiced by Scarlett Johansson) interjects into an otherwise normal conversation between humans a comment about how she’s glad she doesn’t have a body and won’t be limited by death. The other people (humans) in the conversation look around at each other, and Chris Pratt’s character says, “Yikes,” while we watch Theodore cringe and look as if he’s about to defend Samantha or maybe chastise her. Her isn’t a comedy, so much as a detailed study of how relationships dissolve after one of the parties has changed and the other hasn’t.

movies022. Before Midnight: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood sounds amazing, but Linklater already did this trick, and arguably more effectively, since he had three movies to really let the passage of time sink in rather than one. Going back to watch Before Sunrise or Sunset is like stepping in the time machine of someone else’s life. Before Midnight brings us Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in middle age, after we’ve already seen them in their hopeful early 20s and their beaten down late 20s. Now they are both disillusioned and married with kids (Yes, those two are mutually exclusive), though Jesse is more apt to adopt a devil-may-care attitude than Celine’s more cynical approach. Midnight gives us the same kinds of deep, philosophical conversations as the first two, but more people are included, which is a nice change. But the climax is just Jesse and Celine in their hotel room, fighting the same fights they’ve fought both out loud and in their minds when they bite their tongues, wondering if they were really meant to be together or to stay together.

movies011. 12 Years a Slave: Sometimes the most awarded film really is the best; it may have been recognized for the wrong reasons, but it still deserves that recognition. Sometimes decisions made to be on the right side of history are still the right decisions. Sometimes it takes a Brit to tell America’s most shameful story. Sometimes it’s worth sitting through a story that induces such shame in order to confront your own prejudices, to find your place in a drama that forces you to make decisions about your own morality. Sometimes keeping the camera still while your black star hangs from a rope is the right choice, so the audience can confront what our country allowed to happen over and over and over again. Sometimes black people should be allowed to direct movies, because white people aren’t the only auteurs in the world. But let’s not make any hasty judgments here- this is only sometimes. Most of the time white people should direct, because most of the great movies have been made by white people. Most of the time we shouldn’t let our cameras linger on hate crimes, because it’s upsetting. Most of the time we should avoid movies like this, because they’ll be hard to sit through. Most of the time Americans should make movies about race too, higher-grossing movies, about white people saving black people, like The Help or The Blind Side- those were hits, let’s make more of those! Most of the time people don’t want brilliant movies, they just want to see what they’ve seen before. Most of the time these kinds of movies are just made for the awards, anyway. 12 Years a Slave is the exception, not the rule. We wouldn’t want to learn any lessons here, would we?

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: I wish more movies were bold enough to tell their stories through their visuals as much as through their dialogue. But that’s what makes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints so precious. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster are unforgettable as, respectively, an outlaw, his bride, and the man that enters her life after her husband goes to prison.

Blue Caprice: Chilling in its sober depiction of the Beltway snipers. Last year, my wife began watching a series of CNN documentaries on the most horrendous American crimes of the 20th century, and we both watched the installment on this 2002 incident. Blue Caprice and its star, Isaiah Washington, give far more insight into the thoughts that go through a killer’s mind than any documentary ever could.

The Conjuring: A fairly standard horror film that’s far more than the sum of its parts due to an attention to detail, particularly when it comes to its character development. The Conjuring is plenty scary, thanks to James Wan’s direction, but it’s scarier because Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Lili Taylor give us plenty of reasons to care about the characters. These aren’t your typical horror movie bimbos; these are real people whose lives are threatened.

Fruitvale Station: It’s a testament to how strong the performances were this year that Michael B. Jordan’s in Fruitvale Station didn’t make my Top 5 Best Actors. But he’s stupendous in this movie, as real as real gets. There’s never a bad time to revisit this heartbreaking movie about the day that Oscar Grant III was shot by a confused cop, but now may be the best time.

The Great Beauty: It’s easy to see why critics compared The Great Beauty to the Fellini classic La Dolce Vita. They share similar predilections for excess and ennui. But Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece is more concerned with admiring the beauty of Rome, eventually finding some sort of meaning within it; Fellini’s enjoyed aspects of Rome’s beauty, but it was far too jaded to find any meaning.

The Great Gatsby: Did anyone else love this movie? My affection for Gatsby is big and unabashed. You could never mistake it for the masterpiece of the book, but director Baz Luhrman does capture something of the American dream and all its perils, helped mightily by Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Did anyone else love this movie either? The Butler is a joy to watch, putting aside the fact that half of the movie is completely fabricated for the sake of the movie. You forget the movie’s backstory and just focus on the brilliant product on the screen, scenery-chewing performances by all the star cameos as 20th-century political figures, pulpy plot developments, and grounding performances by the great Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

Let the Fire Burn: Anyone surprised by Ferguson hasn’t heard the story of MOVE. In 1985 (a short 29 years ago), the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the cult organization’s headquarters in the middle of the city and allowed the resulting flames to spread and kill members of MOVE, as well as a children inside the building. The director Jason Osder takes the refreshing approach of using only archival footage; no annoying talking heads here.

Monsters University: Another underrated mainstream gem. Apparently this is on the lower end of Pixar’s output, but I loved Monsters University, maybe even more than the original. It starts as a typical college movie, albeit with monsters, but it takes a more creative turn in the third act that elevates it among Pixar’s best.

Much Ado About Nothing: To go from The Avengers to a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation set in his house was quite the magic trick by Joss Whedon. But the real magic is how natural the whole cast is in one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Whedon finds clever ways to use his house to aid in the development of both the plot and the characters, giving us a small delight of a film.

No: Released near the beginning of 2013 and included in the nominees for that year’s Academy Awards, everyone seems to have forgotten about No. Telling the story of a 1988 advertising campaign in Chile to get people to vote against the incumbent president in Chile’s first election in decades, director Pablo Larraín made one of the year’s most visually interesting movies. You see the potential of advertising to fight to influence people’s minds, and Gael García Bernal gives the movie its human center.

Room 237: Admittedly, this movie probably won’t appeal to most people, unless you have a genuine appreciation for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and have a desire to listen to slightly delusional people illuminate their theories on what it all means. Their ideas range from intriguing to downright ludicrous, such as the one that posits that Kubrick made The Shining to apologize for helping to fake the Apollo II moon landing. Room 237 is a fascinating deep dive into how we interact with great art and an ode to Kubrick’s meticulous eye for detail.

Star Trek into Darkness: Much maligned by fanboys and critics alike, Star Trek into Darkness was actually the best action movie of last summer. I get the idea that J.J. Abrams and the filmmakers might have borrowed a little too much from the original Wrath of Khan, but it just didn’t bother me. The new versions of these characters are so well-established, and the movie was paced so well, that I easily overlooked their reliance on the earlier story’s beats to revel in the exciting action sequences.

Stories We Tell: The theme of this documentary is right there in the title: we tell stories for a variety of reasons, but a main motive is to make sense of our lives. Filmmaker Sarah Polley interviews her family to tell the story of her childhood and her complicated relationship with her father. I won’t spoil any of the revelations she includes, but I will say that if this film is any indication, along with her first fiction feature Away from Her, Polley is already a master storyteller.

These Birds Walk: Another stellar documentary. 2013 was the year for non-fiction films to break from the documentary’s usually rigid formats in order to more fully tell their stories. These Birds Walk shows us the children who seek shelter at the Edhi Foundation in Pakistan, presenting a visual poem of sorts about their broken lives.

Previous Top Tens

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

Music Bummys 2014: Best Songs of 2013

I thought I was doing pretty well this year- only 15 of my top 50 songs could be considered Americana. I felt like maybe I was branching out, instead of allowing my predisposition towards folk music to dominate my music consumption. But then I realized half of my top 10 is Americana, so maybe there’s just no changing me. But apart from Americana you’ll find a lot of baby-making R&B, a bunch of alternative Christian music you won’t find on KLUV, some EDM (Wow, is that an EDM song all the way up at #2?), 2 freaking country songs, and Michael Bublé, whose presence on this list should be enough proof that I could care less what the critics thought were the best songs of 2013.

Links to the songs are in the titles. I tried to link to only clean videos, hence no links to Beyoncé videos.

Another Twenty-Five

50. “Demon to Lean On” by Wavves
49. “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” by Superchunk
48. “Seven Seas” by Golden Youth
47. “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” by Hiss Golden Messenger
46. “Body Party” by Ciara
45. “Lay My Burden Down” by Aoife O’Donovan
44. “Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly)” by Lady Gaga
43. “It’s a Beautiful Day” by Michael Bublé
42. “Two Fingers” by Jake Bugg
41. “Play by Play” by Autre Ne Veut
40. “The Way (feat. Mac Miller)” by Ariana Grande
39. “Drunk in Love (feat. Jay-Z)” by Beyoncé
38. “The Mother We Share” by CHVRCHES
37. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams
36. “Still Fighting the War (feat. Jimmy LaFave)” by Slaid Cleaves
35. “I Wish I Wish” by Sam Amidon
34. “Avant Gardener” by Courtney Barnett
33. “In the Garden” by Sandra McCracken
32. “Relatively Easy” by Jason Isbell
31. “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend
30. “Like a Rose” by Ashley Monroe
29. “Exile Dial Tone” by Beautiful Eulogy
28. “Long Way Down” by W.L.A.K.
27. “Inland” by Jars of Clay
26. “Song My Love Can Sing” by Doug Paisley

Top 25 Songs

25. “New Slaves” by Kanye West: West has mastered vulgarity; his use of obscenities in his music has become as much an art form as his sampling. Yeezus as a whole is brilliant in how it denudes our society’s fake morality. It’s hard to feel sorry for Kanye specifically, but the fact that even rich black people continue to experience discrimination is a problem he makes undeniable.

24. “Wasting My Young Years” by London Grammar: London Grammar is probably more famous for appearing on Disclosure’s album, but their biggest statement came on their own album. “Wasting My Young Years” is unapologetic in its melancholy. Luckily, frontwoman Hannah Reid’s voice is ethereal enough to keep you getting down in the dumps.

23. “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You” by Derek Webb: This song is heartbreaking in the wake of Webb’s divorce (see below). But the sentiment is still potent. Webb courts controversy elsewhere, but on “I Was Wrong”, he clearly articulates the art of forgiveness.

22. “The One That Got Away” by The Civil Wars: Maybe the passion and spite bursting forth from this song is imagined. I don’t care. We lost something great when Joy Williams and John Paul White decided to part ways. R.I.P.

21. “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire: I have a feeling this song will rank higher on this list in a few years. The highlight of their ambitious double album Reflektor, “Afterlife” wrestles with the question of what happens after things are over, oscillating from relationships to life itself. The lyrics never answer the question, but the music that carries on after the words appears to suggest that there is at least something.

20. “Ask Me To” by Courtney Jaye: A purer pop song wasn’t released last year. Forget Neko Case. The best power-pop released last year was by Courtney Jaye.

19. “Honest Affection” by Kye Kye: The best thing to come out of Estonia since…hm. Not sure what else has come out of Estonia recently, now that I think about it. Apparently machinery and equipment. Who knew? Anyway, the members of this band are from Estonia, and it’s pop like you’ve never heard before.

18. “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West: Seeing as it samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, “Blood on the Leaves” was already going to be a heavy song. Add to that its apparent topic of abortion, and it’s hard to imagine a more depressing song. But “Blood on the Leaves” is everything that has made Kanye West great, from his use of Auto-Tune to the ingenious sample to the singularly angry lyrics- it’s a synthesized miracle of a song.

17. “Hourglass” by Sandra McCracken: As the other half of the previously mentioned divorce (see above, Derek Webb), McCracken’s 2013 album had the potential to be equally heartbreaking. But the subject matter she deals with is less ripe for ironic interpretation. Instead, McCracken focuses her beautiful voice on dream-like visions of what we have to look forward to when Christ returns, of which “Hourglass” is the pinnacle.

16. “Royals” by Lorde: I wonder if “Royals” had been less ubiquitous last year, would I love it more or less? It’s hard to say; on one hand, maybe I’d feel more superior about myself for liking an unheard gem. But on the other hand, if I ever say “Jet planes, islands,” you know to say “Tigers on a gold leash”, and that’s pure joy.

15. “Where Were You” by Ghost Ship: I can’t say for certain if any other songs have the book of Job as their source material. But I doubt any capture the meaning of that book so fully both in their lyrics and music. Taken from Job’s closing diatribe from God, essentially asking where Job was when God created the world, the instrumentation builds into a chaotic paean to God’s power and, ultimately, His great mercy.

14. “Recovery” by Frank Turner: I didn’t know I needed Turner’s brand of folk-punk until I heard it. “Recovery” apparently plays on radio stations in areas that still value good radio, so, naturally, I’ve never heard it in Oklahoma. Instead, I get excited every time it comes on my iPod, and I rock out to it behind my wheel as I try to master every lyric in this wordy masterpiece about how difficult self-improvement seems.

13. “Dark and Dirty Mile” by Jason Boland & the Stragglers: Here is an example of why I’m a liar when I say, “I like all kinds of music- except country.” Here is an example of country at its simplest and best. Here is an example of a band that understands country is most profound when dealing honestly with the darkness in this world.

12. “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)” by Daft Punk: If there was a more ubiquitous song last year, it was called “Blurred Lines” and it was hypnotically odious. “Get Lucky” comes dangerously close to the same mysogyny; you’re not sure Pharrell is trying to take advantage of the girl who’s “up all night for good fun” or if she’s in on the game. But by the time Nile Rodgers hits his solo on the bridge, you’re sure it’s the latter, because you’re dancing and singing and you’ve stopped thinking.

11. “Stoned and Starving” by Parquet Courts: I was surprised when this song didn’t end up in the top 10. It’s such a timeless piece of punk, following frontman Andrew Savage as he looks for a snack to quench his munchies, about nothing and brilliant at the same time. I guess it’s at #11 because I followed my heart with the next 10 songs, something I’m sure Savage and Co. would shrug at amid ample feedback.

songs1010. “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)” by Amy Speace: I know I’ll alienate the vast majority of my readership with this reference (so like 4 of you), but this song by Speace always evokes the story-song emotion of Jason Robert Brown’s best songs in his musicals. The delivery by both Speace and Fullbright is less theatrical than, say, Norbert Leo Butz or Andrea Burns. But the imagery is just as evocative, detailing the story of the sea’s unrequited love for the shore with gossiping shells and an interloping moon. Speace, who has a background in the theatre, gives the more emotive performance, while Fullbright is a nice, more subdued complement. The combination leaves me with a feeling of longing every time.

songs099. “Rocket” by Beyoncé: Goodness, this song is sexy. Another appropriate word for it is “sex-ful”, as in “full of sex”. This might be the most explicit song I’ve ever heard that never actually references anything explicitly. For that reason, I can only commend this song with the caveat that I can’t imagine this being anything but a stumbling block to those who aren’t married (and I can’t link to the video for ANYONE). And for those who are, I haven’t quite worked out in my head if listening to something like this is right or wrong. Trip Lee may have put it best when he posed the question to Beyoncé on his blog, “Is there a way to celebrate married sex without publicly flaunting one’s own sexuality and tempting others to lust?” I don’t know the answer, but if there’s a way, Beyoncé has paved it.

songs088. “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake: Timberlake’s album was a disappointment to many, and it wasn’t quite the blockbuster everyone expected. But “Mirrors” was everywhere in my life last year. A refreshing ode to commitment and how the one you want to spend the rest of your life with sometimes sneaks up on you, “Mirrors” was a nice change of pace from everything else on the radio. In the context of his album, “Mirrors” stands out from the retro-soul Timberlake sometimes overreaches for. It sounds like the song Timberlake’s whole career has been building towards, the culmination of his best musical and personal qualities.

songs077. “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)” by Drake: I say this as someone who loves Drake and his music, but the best thing about “Hold On” is that it doesn’t even sound like a Drake song- or at least what the radio thinks of as a Drake song. “Hold On” sounds out of time, like Drake’s voice could be coming from the future or the past or some alternate version of the present. The lyrics would be vaguely creepy, except the chorus is vaguely comforting, like the girl really does belong at home with Drake, like it would really be her home. Even if the lyrics are stalkerish, “Hold On” has the same key ingredient as other restraining order songs like “Every Breath You Take” or “Happy Together”: an indelible melody. That lilting chorus was the difference last year between a meme and an all-time great song.

songs066. “The Bad Days” by David Ramirez: Ramirez came out of nowhere last year to become one of my new favorite artists. An Austin native, he has an authenticity in his songwriting that most folk artists only dream of. Here, Ramirez is encouraging his significant other (Wife? Girlfriend? Ramirez is a mystery.) to hold on to the good times. Few love songs have a line in their chorus as strong as “You’re still my girl in the bad days”. Even fewer can top it in a verse with a line as blunt as “I pray that the times that our love is sweet / Outweigh the days that you hate me.”

songs055. “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” by Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford: This song shouldn’t be on this list. It’s an old song with a long history in folk music, covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to the man that Inside Llewyn Davis was loosely based on, Dave van Ronk, to freaking Jeff Buckley. But I can’t help but love the version sung by Llewyn and his dead partner (voiced by Mumford in the movie). It might be the harmonies deceiving me, but I think it’s more than that. “Dink’s Song” is always sung very sparely, but I think T-Bone Burnett filled the song out well while still preserving the simplicity that is essential to its charm. And the harmonies help.

songs044. “I Blame Myself” by Sky Ferreira: Sky Ferreira doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation, except when she does. “I Blame Myself” is the song of a woman who does care what others think about her, but contrary to the title, I don’t think Ferreira is really blaming herself. The whole tone of the chorus is defiant, as if her insistence that any woman should be blamed for their own involvement in sexual harassment is totally and completely sarcastic. Fitting, with all the domestic abuse charges flying around in sports news lately. This should be required listening in the NFL. They won’t be able to get it out of their heads either.

songs033. “Elephant” by Jason Isbell: For the longest time I couldn’t choose a favorite song from Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. But “Elephant” stands out every time I hear it. When you hear it in the context of the album, it might not stand out, since it’s surrounded by great songs. But “Elephant” is far and away Isbell’s best song yet, solo or with the Drive-By Truckers. I don’t know if the girl dying in this song is supposed to be a metaphor or if she was real in Isbell’s life, but his portrait of her is devastating. It’s hard to imagine I’ll ever hear a more truth-filled song about dealing with death.

songs022. “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)” by Disclosure: Never. Then a metronomic beat kicks in, with syncopated flourishes. Then Sam Smith’s voice slides in, and comfort. This sounds like a human song now. His verse ends, and synths wash over me, still comforting. Smith is back, but he sounds less human now. He sounds sure of his relationship, but the music isn’t sure. The bottom slips out from under him. Now Smith is wailing, and desperate. Not human. No, not human at all. What’s happening to him? WHAT’S HAPPENING TO HIS VOICE? WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME? WHY AM I SINGING WITH HIM? WHY AM I SINGING FALSETTO? WHY IS MY HAND IN THE AIR LIKE A DIVA? WHAT IS HAPPENING? I’m hooked. No, latched. Never.

songs011. “Go Wherever You Wanna Go” by Patty Griffin: I saw Patty Griffin at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton earlier this year. She was predictably incredible, if you like her brand of Americana, and I don’t- I love it. I went into the concert excited to hear a wide range of her songs, but mostly ones from my favorite album of hers, Children Running Through. I liked American Kid at this point, but it wasn’t my priority that night. Then, near the end of her set, Griffin played this song. I already thought it was the best song on American Kid. But when I heard it that night, it took on new meaning for me. Griffin wrote the song for her recently deceased father. As I listen to it, I think of Griffin’s joy at the idea of her father finally being free from the demons of his life, whether they were the heavy ones of war or the routine ones of having to pay the bills. I don’t know what Griffin’s ideas of heaven are, but this song gets close to my idea of heaven’s freedom. That night, at Dan’s Silverleaf, when Patty Griffin swung into the final chorus of this, one of her most wonderful songs, I thought of my grandparents, all dead. I thought of their full lives, and the peace they have in heaven, if that’s where they are. I thought of my parents, all the hard work my mother and father put in to give my sister and me opportunities; all the ways my dad serves at church, giving up time and energy in a way that he would never call a sacrifice; all the hours my mom spent taking care of me and my sister, just her, when my dad was away on business trips. I thought of what it must be like to know your parents are finally free of the hard kind of work and pain and giving so much. I suppose when that happens I’ll think of this song. I’ll be older, and the meaning will have only deepened.

Previous Top Songs

2012

“Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham
“One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)” by Trip Lee
“Fire of Time” by David Ramirez
“Church Clothes” by Lecrae
“Climax” by Usher
“Day by Day” by Andrew Peterson
“When We Were Young” by Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra
“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean
“Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling
“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes

2011

“Someone Like You” by Adele
“Need You Now” by Cut Copy
“You Are the Beauty” by Gungor
“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
“Oklahoma Sky” by Miranda Lambert
“Otis” by Jay-Z & Kanye West
“This Changes Everything” by Matt Papa
“Days Like This” by Over the Rhine
“Bright Lights” by Gary Clark Jr.
“Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver

Movie Bummys 2014: Best Performances of 2013

Every year has great performances, but this year you’ll notice some themes. There were several films as a whole whose performances I couldn’t deny either. You’ll see that I favored 12 Years a SlaveBefore MidnightCaptain Phillips and American Hustle. It’s no coincidence that most if not all of these movies will end up in my “Best Movies” post next week. Maybe my love for those movies is coloring my perception of the performances’ quality. Or is my love for those movies compounded by my love for the performances? I haven’t figured out which yet. But, regardless, I can say for certain that these are the year’s great performances.

You may also notice that the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor  Oscarwinners aren’t on my lists. It’s not because I didn’t like those performances- both McConaughey and Leto are great. But I liked the ten performances I chose better. It may be because I thought Dallas Buyers’ Club as a whole was a bland, misleading movie, so my perception of the performances is as bland, misleading performances. Who knows?

You’ll find links to clips of each actor’s performance in their name.

performances4Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (winner)12 Years a Slave was never about just the one man. And I understand the arguments against Ejiofor, the same that could be used against Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button: they’re all passive, and the events of the movie just sort of happen around them. But there’s more to Ejiofor’s Solomon than that. Solomon’s spirit of survival is the fulcrum of the movie, and Ejiofor, alternating from fervent determination to desperate helplessness, embodies that spirit. He’s essential to 12 Years‘s success, and it will be remembered as an iconic performance.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby: The Academy nominated Leo for his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I haven’t seen that, and I won’t. Leo as Gatsby was enough Leo for me last year, but only because it might have been his best performance yet. That’s saying a lot after the career he has, but Gatsby is everything great about DiCaprio distilled into pure, honest desire.

Tom Hanks, Captain PhillipsIt was absolutely wrong that Hanks wasn’t nominated for the Oscar last year. Shaky Boston accent aside, no one gave a better performance that the one in the scene in that clip. As he tries to keep it together while uncontrollably falling apart as he comes out of his crisis- I don’t know how you do that as an actor.

Ethan Hawke, Before MidnightHawke has always been underrated as an actor. Not dashing enough to be a leading man, too boyish to play the straight man in comedies; it’s only been under the direction of Richard Linklater that he’s found much praise. Before Midnight gives us a glimpse of the piercing, knife-like wit and empathy we’ve been missing.

Joaquin Phoenix, Her: Phoenix has a totally thankless job to do as Theodore- he spends most of the movie just listening. But watch the clip in this link; as he listens to Samantha, the AI who is now Theodore’s girlfriend, you see him go from true excitement about her to mild embarrassment to quietly worried about the implications of what she says. Only someone who lives in his characters as much as Phoenix does could pull this off.

performances3Actress

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight (winner): Maybe it’s not fair to choose a woman who has had three movies and a virtual lifetime to perfect her character, but Delpy makes fairness a moot point. There’s no way she could have played this version of Celine 9 years ago. The maturing and jading she’s endured over that time is evident both in the way her body has aged and in the way her conversation has almost lost its hopefulness. Both Jesse and Celine were old enough in Before Sunset to have become disillusioned. In Before Midnight, Delpy’s disillusionment is full and realized, but it’s the glimmers of hopefulness that stick with you.

Bérénice Bejo, The PastYou may recall Bejo from The Artist, but she’s in a much heavier role in The Past. She’s no less delightful though, just in a different way. The Past deals with broken relationships and suicide, so it’s not a walk in the park exactly, but Bejo’s performance lends the journey much-needed soul.

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine: This clip is the perfect example of Blanchett’s brilliance. She’s never condescending toward her character, treating her with the utmost seriousness. But she also makes sure the inherent ridiculousness isn’t lost; without her, Woody Allen’s dramedy would have been totally tone-deaf.

Sandra Bullock, GravityIt should have been impossible to get noticed in a movie like Gravity. The actress Cuarón chose to fill the edges of his star-studded screen should have been expendable, easy to miss. But Cuarón chose Sandra Bullock, so all should-have-beens went out the window, and Bullock turned in a full performance that went beyond meer desperation into catharsis.

Brie Larson, Short Term 12: Compassion is a difficult emotion to convey without sinking into corny earnestness. Telling the story of a group home with troubled teens would be the perfect opportunity to fall into this trap. But Larson finds the precarious line between compassion and cheesiness, as her character tends to the kids’ bodies and hearts while struggling to be vulnerable with her own.

performances2Supporting Actor

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave (winner): Fassbender isn’t doing himself any favors if he’s trying to make people like him. After breaking through with his charming English soldier in Inglourious Basterds, he’s really only played villains and/or despicable men. For reference, see his sex addict in Shame, his impersonal android in Prometheus, and this role, as a sadistic slavemaster. I have no desire to write about the kinds of things his character does in 12 Years a Slave; it makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it, and I suspect this is part of why he didn’t win the Oscar- an Oscar for Fassbender must have felt like giving a prize to Master Epps. Epps isn’t evil though; it’s thanks to Fassbender’s performance that we know Epps is simply corrupted by his power. It’s also thanks to his performance that it’s hard to tell the difference.

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips: Many actors have portrayed the thankless role of the dark-skinned foreigner attacking the Americans. Most haven’t been given the opportunity to make that foreigner into a real person with relatable desires and flaws. Abdi benefits from a filmmaking crew that set out to make the kind of movie that does provide that opportunity, but he colors the role’s lines in so completely that you may forget who you’re rooting for.

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle: Bradley Cooper already showed us his comedic best as a leading man in Silver Lining Playbook, so it’s a delight to see him double down on neurosis with a character who seems confident and confidently unaware of his own compulsive nature. Cooper’s FBI agent is so inept, it’s no wonder (spoiler alert, sort of) the con artists win in the end. Cooper’s the kind of guy you know is going to lose, but it makes him all the more lovable.

Bruce Dern, Nebraska: Bruce Dern got the Best Actor nomination from the Academy, but Dern’s Woody really belongs in the Supporting category; Will Forte’s David is the real starring turn. But Dern is certainly worth singling out for praise. Woody doesn’t seem to be all there for the majority of the film, but Dern gives all his actions a certain matter-of-factness that is so characteristic of people “of a certain age”.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners: Hugh Jackman got all the attention for Prisoners, but his performance was overblown. Gyllenhaal paints the more fascinating portrait of a loner detective struggling to do his job among incompetent bureaucracy and desperate victims. In what turns out to be a disappointingly standard crime story, it’s Gyllenhaal’s cop that ends up being the emotional and moral center.

performances1Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (winner): I don’t really take actors seriously when they talk about the ordeal they go through when they take on a hard role. If they complain about the conditions or the grind of the shoot, it never fazes me; I always think, well, you get paid to act, so I don’t feel bad for you. I don’t know that Nyong’o has ever made such comments about her experience shooting 12 Years a Slave, but I’d believe her. It’s dangerous to see this role, and by extension this movie, as IMPORTANT, because that misses the artistry involved and over time steals the film of its raw power. Beyond the importance of her role, Nyong’o is captivating as a her master’s favorite slave, which comes with more problems than that designation might suggest. But it is the most important performance of the year, and the best; and it’s not close.

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle: Jennifer Lawrence is the closest thing we have to a nuclear bombshell in Hollywood right now. The scene in the link shows the full gamut of how messed up her character is, but it also shows Lawrence’s full range as a dramatic and a comedic actress. I don’t know what’s going on with that accent, but it says a lot about how brilliant her performance is that I don’t care.

Emma Watson, The Bling Ring: I wanted to find a clip of a full scene of Emma Watson in this movie, but there aren’t any appropriate ones out there. Besides, the trailer gets the job done. It helps her case that she gets the best lines (For example: “I want to lead a country one day for all I know.”) and has the most outrageous character. Watson, after pulling off extremely earnest in 2012 with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, projects a different kind of earnestness, one mixed with a vapid lack of self-awareness, and she totally steals the movie.

Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Why isn’t Oprah in more movies? It’s almost a shame she’s had so much success with her own (Haha, or OWN! Man, I kill me…) brand, because it interferes with taking on great roles like this. The Butler is full of scenery chewing, which is part of its appeal, but Winfrey (and Whitaker, of course) gave it much-needed, deeply felt class.

Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now: Woodley has had quite the year, what with her movies about teenagers with cancer and unbelievable post-apocalyptic societies making bundles of money. And she’s given great performances before (see: The Descendants). But in The Spectacular Now Woodley plays a girl that doesn’t stand up for herself, a new trick for her, one that she totally pulls off and one that elevates the movie past its plot-driven faults.

Previous Top Performances

2012

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Best Supporting Actress: Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Best Actor: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

Quick Take: Blue Ruin (2014)

blueruinThe best part about the movie release schedule being filled with blockbusters is that it makes the small, quiet movies that much easier to appreciate. Take one of this year’s best movies, Blue Ruin: Here’s a movie with several gunfights, knife fights, and an ending that amounts to a bloodbath, and it never reaches into the cacophony of mainstream action movies, preferring instead a logical framework that considers what it must be like for an average, everyday person to try doing what action stars are only capable of in the movies. Macon Blair, in a determined and frantic performance, plays Dwight, who is seeking revenge for deeds best left discovered. He’s not very good at it, but director Jeremy Saulnier takes you step by step of Dwight’s process. You see that he’s an amateur, but his determination is enough to convince you he may just be able to pull it off. But at what cost? Dwight doesn’t seem to care.

Quicker take: No country for young men who don’t know what they’re doing.

August’s Notable Music

Hits

august1Ariana Grande, My Everything: Ariana Grande burst onto the scene last year with “The Way”. Or I should say she burst onto my particular scene; there’s a whole scene of tweens who knew her from Sam & Cat. Strangely, I had never heard of her. Listening to her whole first album, you got the sense that Grande wanted to reach back into the R&B heyday of the ‘90s and single-handedly bring it into the intense, weighty R&B haze of the ‘10s. Not every song was great, but enough of them were to make you pay attention. My Everything is more of a whole album; she’s let go of the ‘90s R&B idea, and it sounds like she’s between ideas. But it also sounds like she’s on her way to a good one.

august2Spoon, They Want My Soul: The “rock is dead” narrative was boring before it even started. But Spoon exists outside of such narratives- even the one the critics have hoisted upon them that revolves around their almost boring consistency. All frontman Britt Daniels cares about is making good music. They Want My Soul is the first Spoon album I’ve heard that sounds like it could unravel at any second. “Do You” is among the best songs they’ve ever made, and “New York Kiss” is indie-rock at its scuzzy finest.

august3Swoope, Sinema: There’s been a dearth of great Christian rap for a while. After Lecrae’s and Trip Lee’s one-two punch in 2012, no one’s reached as high. That same year saw the wonderful indie-rap tandem of Beautiful Eulogy and Propaganda, and Beautiful Eulogy released an even better record last year. But apart from that everything great in Christian rap has been on the fringes, like Shai Linne’s understated Lyrical Theology series or Sho Baraka’s subversive Talented 10th. Swoope’s Sinema is the first album in a while to reach for something approaching mainstream rap heights. As the ringleader of the great Christian rap group W.L.A.K., Swoope has precedent for game-changing flow. But he’s trying for something bigger here, a headier statement. If it weren’t for Propaganda, he’d have the best Christian rap album of the year.

Misses

august4The Gaslight Anthem, Get Hurt: The Gaslight Anthem have never been about subtlety, but they’ve never been about hitting you in the head with a hammer quite as much as on Get Hurt. Frontman Brian Fallon has always had a Springsteen-lite vibe to him that he hasn’t been shy about. He never had the Boss’s lyrical acumen, but he wasn’t bad. On Get Hurt, he’s bad. If vagueness or bluster is your thing, then you’ll like Get Hurt. I guess vagueness or bluster is my thing, because I liked it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a bad album.

august5The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers: I can enjoy something without liking it, but that’s not what this is. I can enjoy something without thinking it’s good, but that’s not what this is. I can enjoy something without feeling excited about it, but that’s not quite what this is either. I can enjoy something without remembering a single thing about it when it’s over. That’s what this is, and The New Pornographers didn’t use to make albums like that.

august6Willis Earl Beal, Experiments in Time: Willis Earl Beal is full of contradictions. And that’s okay; it forces you to accept him as a real person, rather than the mystical R&B troubadour mask he sometimes wears. It was those paradoxes that made Nobody Knows. one of the most exciting records of 2013. But since then, all the records Beal has made seems to be in reaction to the success of that one. Experiments in Time finds Beal dialing everything back, and that restraint robs Beal’s voice of the dynamism that was so key to the appeal of the record I actually liked.

Under the Radar

august7Foreknown, Ornithology: So up till this point, I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a joke-rap Christian rap record. UNTIL NOW. I don’t know that the world was begging for it, but after listening to Ornithology, it’s hard to argue we didn’t need it.

 

august8Grace Askew, Scaredy Cat: Seeing as how The Voice is the most popular singing competition on television (take that, American Idol!), calling Grace Askew “Under the Radar” may seem hard to justify. But considering being the most popular singing competition on television isn’t exactly a high bar to rise above, I think it fits. Anyway, Askew’s brand of blues + country (=bluntry) isn’t original, but she’s got it down.

august9Twin Peaks, Wild Onion: You may expect a record with a song called “Sloop Jay D” on it to be a Beach Boys tribute. But the only thing Twin Peaks seems to have in common with the Wilsons & Co. is a propensity for classic hooks. “I Found a New Way” and “Good Lovin’” are just two examples of the kind of guitar rock that would be of a piece with Spoon’s older records.

Off the Grid

august10FKA twigs, LP1: Sometimes albums get really high Metacritic scores and I don’t understand why. Like, we all like alternative R&B now, but did it have to go this far? If I wanted brooding AND obtuse, I’d listen to metal. But everyone seems to love LP1 so much, I feel like I’ll have to give it another try at some point.